OAKLAND, California (Reuters) - Federal agents raided a cannabis cultivation college on Monday in the San Francisco Bay area widely known as the “Princeton of Pot” and the “Harvard of Hemp,” authorities said, as the U.S. government pressed its clamp-down on medical marijuana.
The sweep turned the college, which offers courses in the growing and dispensing of marijuana, into the latest flashpoint between federal law enforcement and medical cannabis advocates in California and other states where pot has been decriminalized for medicinal purposes.
“This is clearly an attack on regulation,” Oaksterdam University Chancellor Dale Sky Jones said. “They just went after a school that tries to teach people how to do things legally.”
Several dozen protesters gathered at the school after the raid, some of them openly smoking joints as they carried signs that read “End federal interference” and “Cannabis is medicine.”
Oakland police handcuffed at least one demonstrator, but the reason for the arrest was not immediately clear.
Jones said veteran medical marijuana activist and Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee was awakened on Monday morning by federal agents conducting a separate search of his home, but he was not arrested.
Federal authorities said raids at Oaksterdam and other unspecified locations were carried out under a federal search warrant that was sealed by a judge, and they gave few details.
David McCullick, a faculty member at Oaksterdam, said a marijuana museum near the school and a medical cannabis dispensary run by Lee were also raided. He said the school’s “grow lab” contained at most 80 to 90 small cannabis plants, while the museum contained a single plant encased in glass.
“Here you’ve got a school that’s licensed by the city,” he said. “It’s just a school. It’s freedom of speech,” he said.
Joycelyn Barnes, special agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Francisco Division, said DEA officers were joined by personnel from the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Marshals Service in the operation.
Barnes said no arrests were anticipated from the raids, but she declined to comment on specifics of the sweep. “This is just part of the three agencies combining resources to investigate criminality involving marijuana,” she told Reuters.
The raid at Oaksterdam, which opened in 2007 and bills itself as the first cannabis college in the United States, followed a report in the Sacramento Bee newspaper last month that enrollment at the school had declined sharply since the federal government began a broad crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities.
In California and other states that have legalized marijuana for medical reasons, the U.S. government has sought in recent months to shut down storefront medical cannabis shops and greenhouses deemed by federal investigators to be serving as drug-trafficking fronts, as well as those that are located close to schools and parks.
Federal authorities have recently intensified their crackdown in Colorado and Washington state, where voters will be deciding in ballot initiatives in November whether to make those states the first to legalize weed for recreational use.
A total of 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some sort of legalized medical-marijuana statutes, according to the National Drug Policy Alliance. But cannabis remains classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law.
The Obama administration has said it would not single out individual patients who possess or grow their own marijuana in states with medical pot statutes. But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and various federal prosecutors have said the government would continue to target operations that support for-profit, illegal drug dealing under the guise of medical marijuana.
Oaksterdam holds classes on Wednesday mornings and one weekend every month.
One demonstrator outside the school on Monday, a 50-year-old laborer on disability with a back injury, said he had taken a class called “Horticulture 102.”
“I tried it (marijuana) and it worked,” said Michael Little Bear. “So the next step was I wanted to make it. There’s goodness here. ... They teach the right way to do things,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Frances Kerry